Christine MacEachern, one of this blog’s readers, recently submitted the following question:
What would be good steps for a writer without a science or tech background to take in order to break into technical writing? I do understand quite a bit about both, but it doesn’t show up ‘officially’ anywhere. I am reluctant to take some kind of certificate course because so many are bogus. Any thoughts or advice would be appreciated!
Technical writing jobs can be quite lucrative; the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its 2012 numbers on how much technical writers earn and the median pay per hour is a solid $30. Furthermore, the demand for technical writers is increasing faster than average, according to the BLS.
Technical writing encompasses many different disciplines including computer science and programming, engineering, biotechnology and general science. Medical and clinical protocol writing can also be lumped in with technical writing; many hospitals and pharmaceutical companies consider their copywriters to be technical writers.
Given that these jobs require significantly more specialized knowledge and experience than just a good command of the English language, how can you get hired as a technical writer if you have no formal technical certification or even some writing clips to your name?
How to get hired as a technical writer with no experience
Get some clips.
If you have no formal training in the technical field you wish to enter, it goes without saying that you must substitute some level of experience for education. In the technical writing world, this means that you need to generate some clips (i.e., published writing examples). This is typically accomplished by winning some freelance writing gigs.
Getting clips may not sound easy, but here is the naked truth about publications: They don’t care about your credentials. It is a moot point to them whether or not you have a Ph.D. or a whole bunch of experience in the field you are asking to write about. No, what 99.9% of publications are going to care about is if your story idea is interesting, matches the style and tone of the publication in question, and has not been previously published.
Also, publications will immediately look at who you plan to interview. In the world of journalism, it is these sources who are viewed as the experts in the field- not you. So even if you have 10 doctorates to your name, you’re still going to be seeking out the real experts in the field.
Get some clips…where you work.
On the other end of the scale, you might already work in a technical field and just not know it. For example, let’s assume you work at a bicycle shop, a place that no one would immediately consider to be technical in nature. However, if this shop operates a blog on its website, there is probably a need for content that is technical; for example, bicyclists may not know how to fix a bent wheel. Likewise, there may be equipment in the shop that is confusing to operate or repair; a well-written user manual on this equipment would certainly be considered technical literature.
The key here is to be resourceful in whatever job function you currently have and not consider your role as being beyond the technical realm. In fact, I challenge my readers to give me even one example of a job that is not technical in nature or that doesn’t involve technology or science at some basic level. Unless you’re out in the Amazon crushing corn with stones, you’re probably already employed in a technical field.
Get an internship.
Many large companies understand that you’re not going to just “hit the ground running” as a technical writer for them. In fact, many large companies won’t even hire you as a full-fledged technical writer until you are first trained as an associate technical writer under the tutelage of a more senior member of the staff.
This approach makes sense- after all, how would even a seasoned tech writer know just how a company wants its user manuals to look or its diagrams to be labeled? And so, if you’re looking to crack into technical writing, you’re well advised to solicit the bigger companies versus start-ups or small businesses. Those bigger companies will have the necessary budget to train you. Smaller businesses probably won’t.
Start guest blogging.
Blogs used to be viewed as the mad ramblings of rejected writers who could find no other medium for their thoughts. Not anymore. As evidenced by Entrepreneur, ProBlogger, Mashable, Copyblogger and the like, blogs have evolved and matured. In fact, Copyblogger founder Brian Clark considers Copyblogger to be an online magazine, not a blog (perhaps another reason why comments on that site were disabled).
Publishing highly technical blog posts is a great way to showcase your technical writing skills. You might even score a job offer from a reader who likes your content and wants to work with you directly. So don’t discredit blogs as digital second-class citizens.
Finally, my personal story
One of my niche writing specialties is e-commerce. However, I don’t have any kind of marketing or business degree to my name. My exposure to online marketing is the result of client who saw one of my old content mill posts and hired me to create lengthy e-commerce tutorials for his website.
The work was low-paid; I made 5 cents per word for content that took me weeks to compile and write. Fortunately, I was compensated for my research time at a nice $50/hour. This gave me a significant incentive to read and research as much as possible.
After two years of working with this client, I was not only producing in-depth e-commerce tutorials but even writing and optimizing Web content for his clients. I was also ready to move on to bigger and bolder assignments.
For someone who used to be a low-paid ‘mill’ worker, I think I did pretty well in becoming an e-commerce and online marketing expert. And I never received any technical writing certification or training along the way.